Unifor’s upcoming election will serve as a referendum on former President Jerry Dias’ style of governance, say labor watchers, after an ethical controversy surrounding the founding leader damaged the reputation of the sector’s largest union private in Canada.
“In a way, this will be a defining moment for Unifor and it’s almost as important as the union’s founding convention in 2013,” said Jim Stanford, a former union policy director who was instrumental in elaboration of certain aspects of its current constitution.
On August 8, Unifor will hold its fourth convention in Toronto, expected to be attended by tens of thousands of former and current union members and observers. Elections to choose Mr. Dias’ successor as president, secretary-treasurer and regional directors will take place during the week. The positions will be filled at a time when the Canadian economy is facing a tight labor market, runaway inflation and the possibility of a recession.
Unifor has over 315,000 members, including some Globe and Mail employees. It was officially formed in August 2013 when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) joined forces.
Mr. Dias had been the president of the union since its inception and was once one of the most respected faces of the Canadian labor movement, with a reputation as a tough negotiator. He successfully campaigned for billions of dollars in new auto contracts for Ontario workers and was a pivotal figure in the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 2019.
But earlier this year, Unifor discovered that Mr. Dias had violated its constitution by receiving a $50,000 gift from a supplier of rapid COVID-19 test kits in exchange for promoting him to union members. He abruptly announced his retirement in March citing health issues, days before the union revealed he was in fact under investigation. Mr. Dias is also being investigated by the Toronto Police Financial Crimes Unit for the allegation.
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Insiders and observers of the Canadian labor movement say the controversy has undoubtedly taken a toll on Unifor’s reputation.
“There is no doubt that the scandal has consumed the union and overshadowed much of the bargaining that has taken place over the past year. I think the union will want to use the convention to turn the page on Jerry Dias,” said Larry Savage, a labor studies professor at Brock University whose research focuses on union culture in Canada.
Dr Stanford told The Globe that Unifor’s credibility as a genuine, democratic force for workers’ rights had been “tarnished”.
“On the one hand, I’m tempted to say that a union is far more important than one man’s misjudgment. On the other hand, you can’t underestimate how reading a bag of money passing through your hands will raise questions in the mind of the average worker,” he said.
Professor Savage believes it is imperative that Unifor’s next leader tries to repair the reputational damage caused by the Dias controversy, especially in a macroeconomic climate conducive to union activity.
“The unemployment rate is low, there is a clear labor shortage and inflation is high. This is a good time for unions because workers have more leverage,” he explained.
Three candidates are vying for the position of National President: current Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne; Mr. Dias’ former aide, Scott Doherty; and Windsor Local 444 President Dave Cassidy.
From the number of public endorsements by local unions, it appears that Ms Payne and Mr Doherty are the two leading candidates. Both have been campaigning aggressively in person and on social media for months to win the support of local unions.
Ms Payne has guided the union through the Dias crisis and operates on a platform of integrity and accountability. She promised to start crafting proposals for “increased accountability” on issues such as staff costs during her first 100 days as president.
Mr Doherty, who was a close confidant of Mr Dias after serving as one of his five aides for years, is focusing his campaign on his reputation as an effective negotiator, stressing how important it is for the union to attract new members, and to improve their negotiation strategies in the face of inflation.
But Mr. Doherty is considered by some to have been too close to Dias, and an obstacle to the adoption of real reform within a union in the midst of a credibility crisis.
“Mr. Doherty’s relationship with Mr. Dias was his greatest strength in February, before the scandal. But it became his kryptonite,” Professor Savage said. union butter, so it makes sense that he would emphasize his experience in that regard.”
Tony Leah, a former General Motors employee and chairman of Unifor Local 222’s political action committee in Oshawa, told The Globe he would have preferred to see the two leading candidates be more outspoken on leadership issues. union under Dias.
“It’s not just about this scandal. Among the members I spoke to, there is still so much anger and frustration about what happened and a demand for more information on how Dias ran the union,” Mr. Leah.
The outspoken union veteran believes Unifor is in desperate need of brand new leadership that has no connection to Mr Dias. But the current electoral system, where not all union members can vote for a leader, is an obstacle to real change, he said.
Only delegates chosen by local union leaders are allowed to vote for the new leadership. The number of delegates chosen by the locals is proportional to the size of these locals. This is why public endorsements from locals are vitally important ahead of elections.
“It’s not one member one vote, but a proportional vote by the members of your local. So trying to figure out the outcome at this point is complicated,” Prof Savage explained.
But Unifor already has a fairly effective governance structure that prioritizes accountability, according to Rafael Gomez, associate professor of labor relations at the University of Toronto.
“As a union, Unifor has many powerful locals, which sometimes protect members from disorganization at the top,” he said.
While the union’s reputation has undoubtedly been tarnished by the Dias controversy, Professor Gomez believes that in a governance system that prioritizes accountability, things become exposed much more quickly.
“You probably could have gotten away with it longer in a private organization.”
Since its founding, Unifor has added more than 20,000 new members to its fold. One of Unifor’s most recent successes was the unionization last May of more than 500 WestJet workers in Vancouver and Calgary, a development that many in the labor movement thought was nearly impossible, given the tight control that the airline’s private equity owner, Onex Corp., exercised over WestJet. governance.
“It was a win we dreamed of in 2013, and I really hope this conference restores that kind of momentum,” said Dr. Stanford, who is now director of the Center for Future Work in Vancouver.
For him, the economic and political environment is more favorable to unionization than it will ever be.
“We have a recipe for an explosion of union activity, and if Unifor emerges from this convention with a successful revitalization of its founding mission, it could make tremendous progress over the next few years.